Iraq faces ‘profound uncertainty’ as violence erupts

Nermeen Al-Mufti , Wednesday 31 Aug 2022

Al-Ahram Weekly reports from Baghdad on the latest clashes in the Iraqi capital

photo: AP
photo: AP


On Tuesday, the inter-Shia violence that had erupted in Iraq seemed to calm after supporters of Muqtada Al-Sadr heeded his call to return to their homes following clashes that left at least 30 people dead, hundreds wounded, and fears that conflicts within the country’s Shia population were spinning out of control.

The latest round of violence appeared to have been sparked by the powerful Shia cleric’s announcement that he was quitting politics. Al-Sadr’s supporters, who had been staging an ongoing sit-in at parliament in the Green Zone, subsequently breached the entrance of the Republican Palace.

As calm slowly descended on Baghdad, sources in foreign and UN missions in Iraq, most located in the heavily fortified Green Zone, reported that they had reduced their security alerts by a notch.

“No, I cannot say that all is clear,” said one Baghdad-based foreign diplomat. He argued that while Al-Sadr’s followers had left the streets for now, there was no telling what they might do tomorrow, or how Iraq’s pro-Tehran factions might respond.

Al-Sadr’s announcement that he was withdrawing from politics followed an earlier decision by his spiritual mentor Ayatollah Kadhim Al-Haeri to retire after attempts to persuade Al-Sadr to transfer his fealty to Iran.

According to another Baghdad-based foreign diplomat, it is too early to say whether the Sadrists have been defeated or Iranian supported groups and militias now have the upper hand.

 “The scenes of violence we saw on Monday and Tuesday within the Green Zone were the most intense since 2019. It’s hard to see how such levels of anger can be switched off overnight,” the diplomat said.

Both diplomats agree that Iraq is passing through a period of profound uncertainty. Growing levels of Shia factionalism are being compounded by the absence of any clear endgame on the part of Al-Sadr’s supporters who showed a new defiance towards Iranian influence in Iraq, vandalising posters of Iranian-backed Shia leaders, including the Iranian general Qassem Suleimani, killed in a US drone strike in 2020.

“It is a strange situation given the followers of Al-Sadr emerged victorious in the parliamentary elections that took place earlier this year. That victory was seen as a clear message that the pro-Iranian bloc in Iraq is losing support,” said one of the diplomats.   

The elections had themselves been hailed as signalling the beginning of political and institutional reform. Yet in less than 10 months what hope had existed has been replaced by scenes of bloody violence.

On Tuesday morning, Iraqis were weighing whether or not the Federal Supreme Court would rule to dissolve parliament, a key demand of the Sadrists. The court claimed it had been forced to delay hearings on the issue because of the curfew put in place following the outbreak of violence. Yet when, in response to the growing calm, the curfew was lifted, it remained unclear whether the government would rescind an earlier order suspending all government functions.

Nor it is that Al-Sadr’s retirement from politics — it’s not the first time he has made such an announcement — will result in his followers abandoning their earlier demands. Political analysts were quick to point out the convoluted language Al-Sadr had used in making the announcement, asking his supporters to “be free” of him. It is a formulation, they say, that Sadrists could interpret as an invitation to act without any direction from their eponymous leader.

When, in the wake of Al-Sadr’s announcement, hundreds of his followers rushed to support those in the Green Zone already staging a sit-in, politicians and analysts began positing the possibility of meetings and negotiations between the Sadrists and rival Shia groups to put an end to the clashes. But political analyst Mujashi’al Tamimi told Al-Ahram Weekly that there were few if any signs that meetings or other forms of dialogue could end the impasse.

The storming of the Republican Palace was widely condemned. Prime Minister and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces Mustafa Kadhimi immediately asked protesters to withdraw. In an attempt to contain the violence, the Iraqi Joint Operations Command ordered a curfew in Baghdad. Still the clashes continued.

While Kadhimi has ordered an urgent investigation in events in the Green Zone and the source of the shooting, no information on the beginning of the bloody violence had emerged by the time the Weekly went to press.

Worried that the situation was spinning out of control, Iraqi officials, politicians and parties, Arab, US and Western officials and international organisations, including the United Nations Field Mission in Iraq (UNAMI) appealed for an immediate end to violence and the beginning of political dialogue.

In a press conference Al-Sadr said that he was “saddened by what is happening in Iraq” and offered his apologies to the Iraqi people. Already on a hunger strike pending the end of violence, Al-Sadr ordered his followers to withdraw within 60 minutes. Minutes after his speech, Joint Operations Command lifted the curfew.

According to reports, Kadhimi and many other high-ranking officials said Al-Sadr’s moves to halt the violence were an example of “the highest level of patriotism and concern to prevent the shedding of Iraqi blood”.

UNAMI welcomed Al-Sadr’s position, hailing his “moderate declaration” and saying “restraint and calm are necessary to resolve the crisis.”

But what comes next?

Political analyst Abdul-Amir Al-Majar told the Weekly that it is almost impossible to see a government being formed that does not win the Sadrists’ approval.

“It was a big mistake for the 73 Sadrists who won parliamentary seats in the last election to resign,” he argued. “They were the largest bloc and if they were still sitting they could have taken the decision to dissolve parliament.”

Another political analyst told the Weekly that Al-Sadr’s retirement from politics had prevented his followers from being drawn into the kind of sedition in which other forces were involved, while Hadi Al-Amiri, head of the Al-Fateh Alliance, said “Al-Sadr put an end to armed violence and deserves appreciation and praise.”

A Sadrist protester, Karar Haider, 29, told the Weekly that “either our demands are met or we will be back on the streets for peaceful demonstrations.” He added that as yet “there are no signs of a real national dialogue taking place, including not only Shia political parties but also Sunnis and Kurds, and this is because the corrupt people are everywhere.”

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